Trucks are bigger and badder, but not better

The 2011 Dodge Ram 2500 Power Wagon, in an undated handout photo. The Power Wagon is one of the few vehicles with locking front and rear differentials and a winch. NYTThey have more power than drivers are likely ever to exploit, and bragging rights depend on statistics that are, in practical terms, theoretical. Like a Lamborghini Aventador’s top speed, a GMC Sierra HD’s maximum tow rating (21,700 pounds) is more of a chest-thumping point than a practical consideration. In some versions of the Sierra 2500, you could theoretically carry a Corvette Z06 (3,175 pounds) in the bed.

Of course, if that’s not enough capability, there’s always the 3500 model, which can carry even heavier things.

While you can’t buy a diesel engine in a mainstream light-duty pickup, heavy-duty pickups now offer propulsion suitable for a tandem-axle dump truck. I’m not exaggerating. Ford’s 6.7-liter Power Stroke diesel V-8 packs 400 horsepower and 800 pound-feet of torque; the base engine in a Peterbilt 348 dump truck offers a mere 260 horsepower and 660 pound feet. Does your pickup really need more power than a Peterbilt?

I drove three new heavy-duty models that represent distinct points on the monster-pickup spectrum. The GMC Sierra Denali 2500HD ($62,124 as tested) is aimed at people who’d rather drive a Mercedes S-Class, if only it could tow 10 tons. The Ford F-350 Super Duty Power Stroke ($56,390) is a towering confluence of old-school truck design (hello, solid front axle) and up-to-the-minute diesel technology. And the Ram 2500 Power Wagon ($50,310) is an outlier, a heavy-duty truck that’s optimized for off-road adventure, provided you can find a trail wide enough to use it. It’s kind of like a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon with a thyroid condition.

The GMC and Ford that I drove were diesel V-8s, while the Ram was powered by a 5.7-liter, 383-horsepower Hemi V-8. (The Ram HD is also available with a 6.7-liter Cummins diesel in-line 6 that’s rated at 350 horsepower and up to 800 pound-feet. But diesel propulsion isn’t available in the Power Wagon.) The diesel trucks hold a nominal edge in horsepower and a huge advantage in torque, but the rev-happy gas-powered Ram felt the friskiest of the three.

What the diesels lack in outright speed, they make up for with a certain relentlessness. In testing by Popular Mechanics, the GMC’s 0-to-60 acceleration took 7.8 seconds. That’s not a head-turning number in the context of gasoline-powered trucks, but the Sierra felt as if it would clock the same time even if it were hitched to the Pacific Plate.

I used the GMC to tow a 3,500-pound boat, and the Denali seemed ready to yank the trailer out from beneath the boat, like a magician pulling a tablecloth from under a dinner setting. Nonetheless, I get the idea that the manufacturers’ fixation on power numbers (the Ford got a power bump midway through the model year, just so it would have three more horsepower than General Motors’ trucks) created unrealistic expectations. While I was driving the F-350, a guy in a white Econoline van pulled alongside and asked, “That’s got the new 6.7, right? Is it fast?” Well, I’m sure the Great White Whale looked pretty fast to Ahab, in the manner of all huge things that move with anything other than ponderous deliberation.

Perhaps a better question would be, “Do you have to take the whole cab off to gain access to the turbocharger?” No you do not, and that’s a new development. If the pre-2011 model needed a new turbo, it was as if the dentist were to say: “O.K., we’re going to fill that cavity. Just keep your mouth closed while we get the skull saw.”
Your local Super Duty mechanic might not need a cab hoist, but he’ll want a sturdy stepladder. To give you an idea of how tall the F-350 is, the tailgate includes a fold-down step and a vertical grab handle. You know you’ve got a tall truck when it has its own staircase and newel post.

The Ford is wide, too. In fact, the outside rearview mirrors telescope and fold to aid parking. One observer, upon watching me navigate into a parking spot and retract the mirrors, burst out in laughter. Now I know how Dumbo felt.

The word “handling” doesn’t really apply to any of these vehicles, but the Ram was the best at impersonating a car. An enormous, awful car — maybe a 1978 Caprice that’s been fitted with wooden wagon wheels — but a car. Perhaps that’s because the Power Wagon’s off-road preoccupations result in sportier suspension tuning than you get in a truck that’s optimized to haul a pallet of granite. The Power Wagon is one of the few vehicles with locking front and rear differentials. The front bumper houses a Warn winch. And you can electronically disconnect the stabilizer bars, turning the axles into terrain-hugging contortionists. If you manage to get stuck in a Power Wagon, you’ve done something very foolish indeed.

The Denali, with its remote starter and air-conditioned leather seats, can temporarily fool you into thinking it’s a nice luxury car. That is, until you round a corner and realize you’re manning the crow’s nest on the SS High Center of Gravity. The Sierra at least has an independent front suspension, which is still a mildly heretical feature among diehard truckers. The F-350, true to tradition, uses a solid front axle the diameter of a redwood stump. It looks sturdy. If there’s nuclear war, all we’ll have left are cockroaches and F-350 axles.

Besides the obvious area of fuel economy — good luck coaxing a number that begins with a “2” — these trucks pose day-to-day challenges. Drive-through automatic-teller machines are a problem, as your cash will probably come out on the same plane as the Power Wagon’s floorboards. Many parking garages will be off limits, the architects having failed to anticipate the citizenry’s taste for two-story transportation. And your trips to the service station will be frequent and painful. You know how gas pumps shut off automatically when your tab reaches $100? No? Well, you’ll find out.

Here’s my question for the potential heavy-duty truck buyer: When an F-150 with the EcoBoost V-6 can tow 11,300 pounds, how badly do you really need the F-250, let alone the F-350? If you’re a contractor or someone who regularly tows and hauls heavy payloads, then perhaps the heavy-duty trucks make sense. If you’re a guy who tows a 24-foot boat a couple of times a year, the half-ton model will be more than sufficient.

I’m not the only one making this calculation. I met with a contractor recently, and he showed up driving a Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid. I commented on his choice of pickup, and he explained that he had owned a heavy-duty 2500 model until he pondered his driving habits and realized he didn’t need mammoth hauling capacity as much as he needed better fuel economy.

I’d recommend a similar bout of introspection for anyone considering a heavy-duty truck. The modern crop of light-duty trucks might not tow that theoretical 10-ton trailer, but relative to their heavy-duty counterparts, they’re faster, they ride better and they get better mileage. But if you do require a heavy-duty truck, I suggest you cover all your bases and test-drive them all.

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